Saturday, May 30, 2009

Gail Collins is an ignorant wine snob

Gail Collins used to be one of my 10 favorite New York Times columnists mainly because her politics generally are close to my own. That means I expect her to be brilliant -- aren't her positions brilliant?

Thus her column this morning was like a mouthful of vinegar. I was shocked and disappointed and I might never again read her with the same enjoyment.

But rather than plagiarize like her colleague Maureen Dowd, let me quote the offensive paragraph here (with italics added):
"Back before the turn of the millennium, my husband and I wrote a book that contained a lot of lists of the best and worst of the last thousand years. Our friend Alfred Gingold contributed “Ten Worst Ideas of the Millennium,” which included flagellants, foot binding, wine in a box, trench warfare and French mime."
I'll be honest, I don't know who Alfred Gingold is. (He does have a home page.)

But Collins and her husband were editors of this book. Thus they must take responsibility for putting wine in a box on the same level of horror as foot binding -- not to mention Marcel Marceau.

And she's not trying to hide from this bad judgment of 10 years ago; in fact, she wants to point it out to us again. She didn't list all Ten Worst Ideas, so she could have corrected her previous error.

Wine in a box, Gail Collins, is a fantastic idea, maybe one of the 20 best wine ideas of the last millennium. Here's why:

* It's much better for the environment than shipping heavy glass bottles everywhere.
* Current bag-in-box technology keeps oxygen out, so the wine can stay fresh up to 3 weeks (compared to a couple of days for bottles).

* You can bring wine in a box camping, kayaking, wherever, without having to carry around glass bottles. I've had decent Merlot while kayaking in Glacier Bay and I've smuggled Tetra Paks of wine into ballparks that refuse to stock drinkable wine.
* The container is NOT the contents, stupid. If you don't like a brand of boxed wine, try a better one. You wouldn't insult all 1.5-liter bottles just because you had a corked one -- or would you?
* There are some interesting boxed wines available -- 3-liter sizes, generally -- for those who aren't too snobbish to try them.

I feel an arm-waving rant coming on here -- there are few types of people I hate more than wine snobs -- so I'm going to cut myself short. Stick to politics, Gail. Though I'm kinda with you on the mimes. But we'll just keep that ... er, quiet.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The true cost of corked wine

Last night I brought a bottle of 1996 Bert Simon Serrig Herrenberg Spatlese Riesling that I had been sitting on for the better part of this decade to Mission Street Food, where it sat waiting for its star turn.

We didn't quaff badly in the interim, as my friends brought a bottle of 2001 Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile Alsace Riesling, which was rippling with acidity, making the tongue cry, "Feed me!"

Riesling is always a good choice with Asian street foods, which MSF was featuring. We felt a little sorry for people at the nearby table who had brought a moderately pricey Napa Cab that wasn't emptying very fast. I wish I had a chance to tell them beforehand, "Those spices are going to make that wine taste hot and unpleasant." People have to live and learn.

But speaking of hot and unpleasant -- my own long-anticipated bottle smelled of cork taint even before we got the cork completely out. I think James Laube could have smelled the TCA from the kitchen. Wow, what a bitter disappointment.

The funny thing, though, is that the wine didn't taste foul. In fact, I deemed it drinkable (though we didn't; I didn't want to have that memory of the wine.) And I don't think the TCA actually smelled foul -- if you didn't recognize it, you might think it was another form of "minerality," though with a plasticky edge.

That's the true problem with corked wine. I suspect that very few corked bottles are poured down the drain. Most people would have just drunk the bottle and thought, hmm, Bert Simon Riesling isn't very good. Or maybe that aged Riesling isn't very good, or even all German Riesling isn't very good. I have a friend in Florida -- a place where you really need to drink Riesling -- who believes this, and I can't help wondering if she was influenced by a disappointing bottle just like I had last night.

Fortunately, my friend ran to his car for a half bottle of Champagne that he just happened to have on hand to save the day (and our Charred Five Spice Chicken with mint, cilantro, baguette and young coconut juice.) But how likely are most people to have an emergency Champagne split? (I like the idea of packaging it on a utility belt with a Velcro fastener -- Never fear, Champagne Man is here!)

Moral of the story: A corked wine costs the consumer, but the greater longterm cost is for the winery.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The view from Bordeaux: Your wine sucks

There's a great quote in an AP story about French wine sales dropping.

But Arnaud Crete, of Chateau Listran in Bordeaux, said he has been pessimistic about the prospects for French wine for some time, as new, low-cost vintages from across the globe gain ground in the international market.

"I always take the example of tomatoes," he said. "They're inedible, the tomatoes you find in supermarkets. But people buy them just the same."

Yeah, that's right, you upstart vintners of Argentina and South Africa and New Zealand. Your wine tastes just like unripe hothouse tomatoes. It's undrinkable. At least in Bordeaux.

Read the full story here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Why isn't wine sold like Miller High Life?

Miller High Life beer has been running a series of ads for more than a year that categorize its drinkers as savvy people who appreciate good things -- while "the swells" do not.

Here's a typical ad: A straight-talking, overweight delivery guy barges into a suite at a baseball game. He asks if anyone knows the score. Nobody does, so he declares that he's taking the High Life. He and associates pack up the beer and leave, sometimes redistributing it to blue-collar types in cheaper seats.

I love these ads on a lot of levels. Mainly, I admire a good campaign.

People like a product that makes them feel superior to others. It's often true that "the swells" in the luxury boxes don't understand the game they're attending. So it's easy to extrapolate that the swells don't appreciate a great beer either.

Then the mind closes a gap that only a pointy-headed intellectual would say is a logical fallacy:
1) Rich people don't appreciate baseball (or racing, or whatever)
2) Rich people thus won't appreciate great beer
3) We take the High Life away
4) High Life is great beer
5) I, a superior person who really grasps the nuances of sports, am sophisticated enough to appreciate the greatness of the High Life.

That's a great campaign. My question is: Why is there nothing like this for wine?

The closest thing might be the unpretentious Yellow Tail ads -- but Yellow Tail was huge before it started advertising.

Why hasn't some company taken one of its private-label wines -- there are hundreds out there these days, fighting for shelf space -- and positioned it exactly like Miller High Life: The workingman's wine. The wine for folks who know better than those rich fools. Do it with a private-label so there's no blowback on the higher-priced wines from the same winery.

This message could resonate. Look at the comments on wine stories in any major newspaper. There are plenty of High Life wine drinkers out there, saying things like "Expensive wines aren't any better than the stuff I drink every day."

Why doesn't the Wine Group or Constellation or Bronco really go after this marketing group?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Wine is a commodity

I'm not feeling romantic about wine today. I'm thinking about Constellation closing RH Phillips.

The brand will continue, but there won't be a winery. A few hundred people will lose their jobs as Constellation centers production at its facility in Lodi.

Will buyers of Toasted Head and RH Phillips even notice a difference? Probably not. If there was a difference in wine quality, it would have happened years ago when the company was still independent and needed to ramp up production. Constellation is not in the business of making bad wine; sometimes its products taste generic, but to quote a beer ad I can't escape from, they always offer "drinkability."

This closing was set up 9 years ago, when the Canadian company Vincor bought RH Phillips. Once you're a commodity, you're a commodity from then on -- whether you're a luxury Bordeaux brand purchased by LVMH or a Dunnigan Hills brand that a Canadian distributor wants to make its flagship.

Constellation bought Vincor in 2006 because it wanted better access to the Canadian market. RH Phillips came along with the deal. The brand had some value -- it's on the wine list at some chain restaurants, for example. So Constellation kept it going.

I never tried RH Phillips wines before the Vincor era, so I have no romanticism about them -- they always seemed generic to me. Closing the winery makes good economic sense.

It's just a little reminder that we can write all we want about some Austrian Dornfelder we tried in a wine bar, but the reality of the wine industry is that millions of people will drink Toasted Head this year. This is what wine is to most people -- a commodity.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

How to open Movia Puro sparkling wine

Last week I watched Movia owner/winemaker Ales Kristancic open a bottle of his sparkling wine, which is bottled with the lees still in it.

This is not a user-friendly wine (it's catty, but I'm going to say this is true of most of his lineup, but for different reasons -- these are wines for wine geeks, not average consumers.)

It must be stored upside down so that the lees collects in the neck, and it must be opened underwater. There's no way to open it without losing a little of the sparkling wine.

Yes folks, this is why Champagnes are so pricey: the winery disgorges them and recorks them for you, preventing you from having to do this.

In contrast, with the Movia bubbly you need a special tool.

Here's a series of photos showing the effervescent Kristancic opening this wine.

After all this, I have to say that honestly I liked the show more than the wine, which had a savory, peppery quality and no fruit to speak of.

I much preferred his Movia Veliko Rosso Brda 2002, an unusual (of course) field blend of Merlot, Pinot Nero and Cabernet Sauvignon that had nice bright fruit, missing in most of his whites (maybe I'm just not geeky enough), with a gentle mouthfeel that showed the influence of the Merlot. No show, though, just good wine. And I admit, I did enjoy the show.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bon Appetit says bacon is a health food

Want to eat healthier? Eat more bacon! So says Bon Appetit magazine, in the June 2009 issue.

The story is called "The Terrific 10," and it's written by San Francisco freelance writer Daniel Duane. The headline on the website reads, "10 Suprising Health Foods."

No. 1 on the list of these newly anointed health foods is bacon. Duane writes:
"Ever see that old Woody Allen movie Sleeper? The one where he goes to sleep in 1973 and wakes up 200 years later, only to discover that decadent foods (fudge, cream pies) turned out to be healthful? Well, here comes Jennifer McLagan, author of a book simply called Fat, telling us that 45 percent of the fat in bacon is monounsaturated, the good-for-you fat that can help lower bad cholesterol levels. Better still, bacon's monounsaturated fat turns out to be oleic acid, the same fat found in olive oil. So that means that some could argue that bacon is about half as good for you as olive oil and about 100 times more delicious."

No wonder Americans are fat! Let's replay those numbers: less than half of bacon's fat is good for you. So let's just ignore that 55 percent bad fat and concentrate on the good.

That means that the BLT at Tony's in Birch Run, Michigan -- which contains a full pound of bacon -- is giving you a half-pound of dietary goodness! Heck, Daniel Duane, why don't you order two!

Having worked around food writing professionals for some years, I can tell you how this kind of article happens. Most food writers resent health restrictions on their recipes; they concentrate on deliciousness, a defensible position. Moreover, most good food writers I know are not overweight because they eat small portions.

Food publications constantly get emails and letters from readers, most of them strident, complaining about unhealthy recipes. The readers may have a point, but most don't win friends with their approach. This is how I grew to hate vegans, even though I once spent a couple of years as a vegan myself. For many people, diet is a religion, and most evangelists of any religion are annoying to nonbelievers.

So when a writer manages to pitch an article like this one, an editor who may have just finished a testy email exchange, or had an obnoxious phone call, is likely to say, "Finally! I eat bacon and I'm not fat. Let's print this."

The problem is, the average reader isn't going to add one chopped-up strip of bacon to their grilled escarole; the average reader is going to take this as nutritional permission to order the 1-pound Tony's BLT. This article isn't about the "Terrific 10" flavor additions (which bacon surely qualifies for.) It's about the Terrific 10 foods for a healthful diet. And it's just plain wrong. But it's what you get when you take your nutritional advice from 35-year-old movies about the future. What's next: 10 great foods from Star Trek? (Hmmm, let me pitch that ...)

Read the whole shameful Bon Appetit article here.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

One woman's dream: Chile's Casa Marin

Maria Luz Marin should be an inspiration to women entrepreneurs worldwide, and maybe she would be if her chosen piece of land wasn't so far out of the way.

Marin was a winemaker for several large Chilean wineries, including Vina San Pedro, the country's second-largest. All along she saved her money and dreamed of working for herself -- especially when her boss left her out of meetings.

Yet despite this early-career hurdle, becoming a head winemaker is actually easier for a woman in Chile than in most countries. The Miami Herald reported last year that 35 percent of the enologists in Chile are women, compared to 5 percent in neighboring Argentina.

Still, Marin is not exactly traveling a path blazed by others. Chile is best known internationally for Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends grown in relatively warm regions. Marin had something else in mind: building a winery in a spot so cool that she has to use her fireplace practically all summer.

Vina Casa Marin is in the town of Lo Abarca, just 4 km from the Pacific Ocean. The vineyards stud a series of rolling hills that get cool ocean breezes every day. Marin says on the summer's hottest day, the temperature might reach 80 degrees Farenheit, but she'll still need a sweater that night.

"Before I planted this vineyard in 2000 it was forest," Marin said. "It was completely unknown as an area for viticulture."

I asked her if she did extensive climate testing before committing her hard-earned savings.

"I didn't do any research at all," she said. "I knew this area because I vacationed here as a child. It was just my experience after so many years. I knew this was the place to go."

Marin is the owner, winemaker and sales rep; she was in San Francisco this week pouring her wines at a trade tasting. "I like having my own company because I can make my own decisions very quickly," she said.

Casa Marin makes a lineup of whites you'd expect to see in a cool part of northern Europe: Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, along with cool-climate reds Pinot Noir and Syrah.

This can be a sales challenge: it's not always easy selling Austrian or German Riesling to Americans, let alone Chilean. But Marin likes what she likes, and has a clear vision.

"I don't like to blend," she says. "I like to do very straight varietals, very clean."

My favorites were these:

Casa Marin Laurel Vineyard San Antonio Sauvignon Blanc 2008: Strong lime and limestone flavors, with a hint of fresh herb. Well-balanced, food-friendly. 92

Casa Marin Cipreses Vineyard San Antonio Sauvignon Blanc 2008: Stone fruit flavors (peach and apricot) with plenty of minerality and a hint of line. Very different from the more austere Laurel Vineyard, but also excellent. 92
Casa Marin Casona Vineyard San Antonio Gewurztraminer 2008: Very floral, lots of rose petal, with some minerality giving it appealing grip on the mouthfeel. Completely dry. 89

Casa Marin Miramar Vineyard San Antonio Syrah 2005: Best wine in the portfolio currently. Spicy up front, with excellent blackberry fruit and an undercurrent of meatiness. Vibrant, well-balanced, with excellent acidity. Just 13.5% alcohol. 93

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Spatlese Chardonnay

This wine was a new one for me -- I didn't know Chardonnay could be Spatlese.

But why not? Spatlese, like Auslese and Kabinett, is a description of the grapes' ripeness, not the wine's sweetness. This is something you learn quickly when you drink German wines in Germany, because unlike German wines here, the great majority of them are dry ("Trocken").

This particular winery, Gerold Spies, doesn't export; it sells most of its wines to a mailing list and actually picks up the bottles for recycling. So it's not a product you're going to run into very often.

Wine purists might be aghast at the idea of Chardonnay grown in the land of Riesling and Sylvaner. It has only been permitted since 1991, and Chardonnay plantings are still minimal -- about 1,500 acres, or 0.6% of Germany's total vineyard land, according to Wines of Germany.

There's no reason to expect German Chardonnay to suddenly take off in the world market, either. Production costs -- and weather risks -- are high enough to make competition difficult with other countries not known for Chardonnay, like Italy.

How was the wine? It was OK, drinkable but not worth seeking out. It tasted unoaked, and the fruit was bright, more on the melon side than lemony/citrusy. If would guess it went through partial malo at least, because while it wasn't buttery, the mouthfeel was fairly rich. I had it with sausages and potatoes, and frankly I would have preferred a nice trocken Riesling, which is of course the conundrum for any grape new to a country: why grow it if it's not an improvement?

I guess at some level I'm a purist after all, but you would not have been able to tell from my empty glass.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Concours Mondial: Final score

How much power does one judge on a panel of five have? It turns out to be mostly negative -- a really bad mark can sink a wine, but a really good mark can't give it a medal.

The results are finally in from last month's Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, where I was one of 225 judges from around the world. I sat on a 5-judge panel in a competition organized differently from most: we didn't debate our scores, but instead just turned in scoresheets that were later tabulated and adjusted according to our grading tendencies. In other words, if I was a tough grader, my scores were, in theory, boosted up.

Our tasting was completely blind; we knew only the vintage, but not the region, varietal or even country. Looking at the results later of only the 150 wines I tasted, here are a few observations:

* Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a very strong region. We tasted five wines and all won medals -- four golds and a silver. My favorites: Poggio Stella 2006, Gersemi Fassati 2006 and Pasiteo Fassati 2005.

* The Moravie region of the Czech Republic is a great source of white wines. We tasted six wines and all six won medals -- three golds and three silvers. However, my scores must have been boosted in this category because I wasn't as enthusiastic as I was about the Italian reds. My favorite: Vinselekt Michlovky Aurelius Private Selection 2000.

* I marked down the Vinne Sklepy Chateau Valtice Ledove Vino Veltlinske Zelene Icewin 2007 from the Moravie region because I didn't realize it was an ice wine; it was the only dessert wine in a group of dry whites, and I realized after turning in my scoresheet that I hadn't given it scores as high as it deserved. Fortunately, this didn't matter: the wine got a gold anyway, so I don't have to apologize to the winery. But as with the whole category, I have to wonder if my scores had any impact on the result at all.

* Conversely, I really enjoyed several wines from an "other white Burgundy" group, including Jaffelin Rully 2007, Ropiteau Frere Auxey-Duresses 2007 and Pierre Andre Meursault 2007. But none of them won a medal.

* Rhone reds from Gigondas and Vacqueyras aren't as strong as you'd expect compared to other categories. We gave three medals out of 15 wines tasted. I might have added a fourth, but I was surprised when this category was revealed. Our favorite: Clos du Bois de Menge Gigondas 2008.

* I enjoyed tasting Luxembourg Rieslings, and we gave four medals out of 18, all silver (I would have gone gold twice). But I wish we had tasted Luxembourg Pinot Gris: Five of those won gold medals, which makes me wonder if Pinot Gris is that much better in Luxembourg, or they got a more generous panel.

* Chilean Carmeneres, yuck. As a group we gave three medals out of 12, but I found only one wine deserving, and its identity surprised me: Casillero del Diablo Reserva Valle de Rapel 2007.

* Hungarian Cabernet is another tough category: we gave only one medal, a silver to the deserving Bock Magnifico Villany 2006.

* Reds from the Douro region of Portugal are trendy lately, but with some exceptions I found quality shaky at a recent tasting in San Francisco and our panel had the same reaction: three medals out of 12. Our consensus favorite: Callabriga Tras-os-Montes 2006.

* While the Concours Mondial may be the world championship of wine, American wines are rarely entered. Why? American consumers don't care. Would they pay more attention if there were more American judges? There were only four of us out of 225. I'm going to guess probably not -- as a nation, we buy wine by point scores, not gold medals.

* 13 American wines did win medals. But unlike the Luxembourg Rieslings and the like, small production wines that seem to be entered for pride, the American wines were almost all mass-produced wines entered with an eye to gaining respectability in Europe.

* Gallo is the main participant, taking 9 medals (6 for Gallo Family Vineyards, and one each for Dancing Bull, Rancho Zabaco and Redwood Creek). Coppola took two medals and Beringer one.

* The one non-mass market US wine to win a medal was Trefethen Estate Chardonnay 2007.

* The highest award for a US wine was a "great gold" medal for Rancho Zabaco Heritage Vines Zinfandel 2007. Congrats to the Rancho Zabaco folks for pleasing the European palate.

* I did not have the privilege of tasting any of the best-in-show wines (check out the Concours website). And I have to wonder how these wines were chosen, since nobody tasted wines outside their group. Does that mean the most generous groups picked the overall winners?

Monday, May 11, 2009

US wines in Germany

Germany may be a nation of beer drinkers, but wine is omnipresent here; even Bavarian beer halls stock a few pork-friendly wines. Moreover, unlike France or Italy, wine-producing nations that mostly drink their own, Germans drink internationally; in grocery stores, German wines are in the minority.

However, while you can easily buy wines from Spain, France, Italy and South Africa even in convenience stores, U.S. wines are rare, outside of low-end Gallo wines that tend to sit in a low corner of the aisle. Even Gallo isn't price-competitive; for 6 Euros, I can get one of their non-vintage California-appellation reds, or a vintage-dated Spanish wine with regional character. What would you buy?

In Hamburg, the second-largest port in Europe, I wandered into a well-stocked wine shop called Hanseaten Select and chatted with wine buyer Mike-Alexander Brede. Brede has one of the largest selections of American wines I saw: a dozen current-vintage reds -- from Bogle Zinfandel to Shafer Merlot -- and a few older vintages of high-end wines like Opus One and Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Cabernet.

"American wines aren't doing much in the German market because they aren't interested," Brede said. "I call wineries asking for the wine and they tell me that it's all allocated, or they have mailing lists, or something. They just don't care about selling in Europe."

Brede had several different bottles from Hess Collection, all well-priced.

"Hess' winemaker was just here a couple of weeks ago," Brede said. "They almost never visit us. That was something special."

Brede is a fan of some U.S. wines; his favorite is Ladera Cabernet, which he stocks. He says Schug Pinot Noir is well-regarded, and he even stocks Schug's quirky sparkling red, though he says he will drink 4 bottles from the 6-bottle case himself. He also says he often recommends Bogle and McManis Family Vineyards wines as offering value for money.

But he says that most German drinkers are not looking for New World style wines, which is why you see many more South African wines on store shelves than Australian.

"South African wines are popular because they're more in the European style, and also some of the wineries have very old European connections," Brede said. "For a little more money, Bordeaux is always very popular. People like a lighter, low-alcohol style."

Paradoxically, Robert Parker's ratings are followed, though they are controversial. Brede says he might use Parker's ratings as an additional selling point but I did not see point-of-sale materials anywhere in the country citing point scores. However, there is a German wine competition that offers medals, and winners of that competition use bottle stickers to advertise it.

Brede says the overall reputation of American wines has been hurt by the ubiquity of generic wines from Gallo and lately from Robert Mondavi Winery.

"Many people here feel a connection with America and so they want to try an American wine, but when they try it, if it's a Gallo wine and it's not so special, they don't see any reason to try another one," Brede said.

One wine-market trend you don't see much of in Germany yet is private-label wines. I spotted a private-label California Cabernet Sauvignon in one grocery store. But unlike in British grocery stores and US wine chain stores, private-label wines are still rare.

Brede wouldn't speculate as to why, but I have a guess: Germans are more puritanical about ingredients than any other country; the EU overturned their purity law for beer, but consumers still reject brands that don't follow it. Perhaps German consumers are still unwilling to buy wines without knowing the source, whereas we English-speakers will wrap our lips around just about anything.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

How to make a burger wine-friendly, by Barack Obama

When they're not running the country, American social conservatives (and their media rep, Fox News) really are good for laughs.

Their latest talk-radio outrage is that Barack Obama likes mustard, particularly Dijon mustard, on a hamburger. My God, he must be a socialist! He's sure not a "regular Joe" (especially because his name is not Samuel).

If you're reading this in Europe, you probably think I'm kidding, but it's true -- Obama and Joe Biden went to a burger joint in Virginia, and Fox News covered it. Obama asked, "I just want mustard. No ketchup. Have you got spicy mustard or something like that? Dijon mustard or something like that?"

You can see some of the conservative reaction here. Suffice to say that a burger with mustard is too "fancy" for these people. A President shouldn't actually enjoy eating any sophisticated food. This is an exact parallel to the idea that a President should be embarrassed about graduating from Harvard Law School.

Now, a President probably shouldn't drink wine either in their eyes (though let me point out that Ronald Reagan liked wine, but GW Bush didn't drink at all, and which one would they rather have back?)

But for those of us who do indulge, let me point out that mustard -- especially Dijon -- is a very wine-friendly condiment. In contrast, catsup, which is full of sugar, will make most red wines taste a little sour. For that reason, also avoid honey mustard if you're having wine.

For those of us who like wine with our burgers -- I sure do -- here's a quick list of how condiments affect wine pairing options.

Good with wine:

Cheese (Cheddar is better than bleu)
Grilled onions
Grilled mushrooms

Raw onions
"Special sauce"
Tomato (almost bad; requires a wine with good acidity)

Bad with wine:
Pickles (though I love 'em)

As for what wine is best with a burger, I'm a fan of a fairly hearty red with good fruit: Zinfandel, for example, or Petite Sirah. But I've opened good Cabernets and Syrahs with burgers plenty of times and been a happy muncher; with a mushroom-Swiss burger I prefer Pinot. However, if it's a trophy Cab, I do force myself to lay off the pickles. But mustard -- that's just fine with wine.

Once again, I'm grateful for Barack Obama's leadership on a key issue facing America today: making hamburgers wine-friendly.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Kafe und kuchen -- feast your eyes

Many Germans eat cake every afternoon. My friends in northern Germany eat "kafe und kuchen" (coffee and cake) as a fourth meal about 4 p.m., with a lighter dinner later of bread and prepared salads.

The quality of cakes available in bakeries (not to mention bread) is very high, but it's a point of pride for many people to bake it themselves.

These are a few of the home-baked cakes I enjoyed in Germany. The cake at the top was made by a friend who's a true Renaissance man: He fights fires, teaches, and does all the cooking for his girlfriend, including this delicious light cheesecake with plump rum-infused raisins. I had two slices; these were not calories to regret.

My friends thought I was a little goofy for taking pictures of their daily kuchen. I guess it would be like one of my friends coming over and doing a photo shoot on a turkey sandwich I made for lunch. But I regret not taking more cake photos.

One storebought bonus below: John F. Kennedy's famous statement "Ich bin ein Berliner" actually means, "I am a jelly donut," because if you order a Berliner, that's what you get.

But what if you order an Amerikaner?

You get a lemon-iced cookie. The one I had was pretty tasty. I'm willing to identify with it.

Friday, May 8, 2009

LA Times on Air and Wine

Just a quick note to point out my story on Air and Wine in the Los Angeles Times.

A couple outtakes from the story:

* One of the main mercaptans responsible for preventing us from immediately enjoying the aromas of wine is methyl mercaptan, which is also what gives stinky cheese its stink and bad breath its badness. In fact, we all carry methyl mercaptan in our bloodstream all the time, and we're just waiting for a time and a place. Cheery thought, yes?

* Vinturi now makes a red-wine and a white-wine model. I like the Vinturi; in fact, I used it last night to open up a 2006 Barton & Guestier Pouilly-Fuisse, which went from smelling like gym floor cement to buttered toast in less than a minute after being Vinturi-ed into a decanter. (I had the Pouilly-Fuisse with some amazing white asparagus that I got from Germany -- I opened a Sauvignon Blanc initially, but it was way to strong for the delicate spargel.) However, I don't really see the difference between the white and red wine models, and the producer wasn't forthcoming with it, so I think it's just an excuse to sell one more product to people who already like it.

* Decanter size and shape does matter, but just as glass size and shape matter. Don't overthink it: If you want a lot of air fast, use a big decanter. That said, my personal favorite decanter (I have four or five) is a very compact Riedel model which I like not because it has a great amount of surface area, but because it fits easily in my freezer or refrigerator -- great for chilling down whites while they aerate.

* After writing the article, I had the opportunity to do performance testing on the Eisch "breathable" glass, and the results were surprising. I'll do a full posting on this next week.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The dilemma of deliciousness

Recently I had the chance to taste a simply delicious liquor: The Balvenie Rum Cask 17-year Scotch.

But it raised a question, about which I had a debate with KCBS Food and Wine Editor Narsai David. This question comes up frequently in the wine world, less so in spirits:

Is it enough for a product to be delicious? Or must it also be representative of its type?

As the name suggests, this Scotch finished its aging in casks that previously held rum. It was excellent: It smelled like a good baba rhum dessert. The mouthfeel was super-smooth, and the finish was very long. If I didn't know better, I would have thought it was a super-premium rum, maybe some previously unknown version of Havana Club aged 10 years or more.

That's the problem: This Scotch costs $130 a bottle, and it tastes like a delicious rum. Does that justify its existence?

My initial impression was yes: Anything that's delicious deserves to find a market. Narsai David was dismissive; he said that there's no reason for a Scotch to taste like rum when there are so many fine rums available.

It's an interesting question. I don't mind flavored vodkas, but I have always turned up my nose at flavored rums because, while vodka is a mostly-flavorless mixer anyway, I think rum should taste like rum. So why am I accepting of Scotch that tastes like rum?

I don't want to suggest that Narsai and I were just hanging out sampling Scotch; we were at a Balvenie pairing dinner at Le Colonial restaurant in San Francisco. Chef Joseph Villanueva made his most successful pairing with the rum-casked Scotch: Coconut braised pork belly with quail egg, parsnip puree, hosui pear, savory caramel sauce and white truffle oil. The dish played well with the sweet nose of the Scotch.

Balvenie wanted to prove that its Scotch pairs well with different kinds of food. I'm not sure why this is important, as most dinners leave plenty of time later in the evening to drink Scotch. But it was a good chance to taste the Balvenie lineup: I liked the 21-year Portwood quite well ($120), but I think the best value was the 12-year Doublewood ($52), which I much preferred to the Single Barrel 15-year ($55).

All of Balvenie's Scotches are on the sweet side, which makes them more approachable to occasional drinkers. The Doublewood -- I can't say I approve of the name, but it's just a name -- opens with rich molasses notes and has hints of red berries, with Sherry on the finish. Add a wee drop of water and it's gentler and a little less sweet, with more of a toffee finish.

Anyway, back to the debate about the Scotch that tastes like rum.

I don't think of myself as a prescriptive critic. In fact, that's a big reason I stopped writing movie reviews: Who am I to tell Hollywood to put fewer explosions in its films when they believe that's what sells tickets? It's also the reason I haven't jumped on the bandwagon of wine critics criticizing high-alcohol wines. Who am I to tell a winery not to make a profit?

However, there's another school of thought that says a critic's job is to point out the intellectually flawed. Narsai was dismissive of the rum casked-Scotch from the beginning, saying with all the great rums in the world, this was just a waste of time. He tasted it and immediately set it aside.

Maybe he's right. I loved drinking it -- it was the only glass I emptied -- but it was free; I wouldn't spend my own money for it. I do spend that much for spirits occasionally, but with my wallet, not my keyboard, I tend to agree with his philosophy. The last few spirits I paid more than $100 for were well-aged bottles of Calvados and Armagnac.

Narsai's a radio guy; if our debate had been broadcast, he would have won easily, because he shifted the topic to "Sideways" and "Bottle Shock." I admitted that I enjoyed both, though for different reasons: "Sideways" is a good movie; "Bottle Shock" is a likable, if also mostly fictional, bad movie.

Narsai pinned me down on this point: "So you're willing to say you enjoyed a movie if it entertains you, even if it's completely fictional and without artistic merit?" I stipulated to that. Yes, I am. I took the same position on the rum-casked Scotch. It entertained my palate. I guess I give it one tongue up. But I do see both sides of the dilemma of deliciousness.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


It's spargel (white asparagus) season in northern Germany, and the country is obsessed with it.

Germany's roads are mostly free from billboards, so the hand-painted signs are even more noticeable: frisch spargel! Spargel menus! Spargel here!

Every restaurant I've gone to so far has had a special page of spargel dishes -- even a beer bar in Luneburg that had only about two pages of food to begin with. Of course, a spargel page isn't really necessary because nobody does a whole lot with spargel: It's either cream soup, or it's steamed whole. The menus list the accompaniments. I've had spargel with scrambled eggs with fresh herbs, spargel with ham, spargel with Canadian salmon. Some serve spargel with a hollandaise-like sauce; others with brown butter (that's homemade spargel, above, with a brown butter sauce.)

I don't know why we don't eat white asparagus in the States. Any asparagus plant that produces green asparagus could produce spargel. It's just a matter of depriving the shoots of light.

The result is a more delicate-tasting asparagus, and that may be why we don't eat it: green asparagus is more intense. That said, I really like spargel, and one of the reasons is that it's much more wine-friendly than green asparagus, against which I usually set New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and let 'em fight it out on my palate.

This being Germany, most places recommend Riesling with spargel, and I'm happy to follow that. Incidentally, it's really striking to me that the great majority of restaurant-list Rieslings here are trocken (dry). In the US we tend to think of Riesling from Germany as mostly sweet; that's OK, but I much prefer the trockens.

I have also had Sylvaner with spargel, a happy match, and Gruner Veltliner from Austria, which I think is probably the best of all so far. But I need to keep investigating spargel-wine matching, and that's going to mean eating a whole lot more spargel. Spargelpalooza!